The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
Pairing Britten (b. 1913) with Shostakovich (b. 1906) makes for good programming with lots of parallels and contrasts. Both composers were ‘conservatives’ who, by the 1950’s, stood alone at the pinnacle of the musical life of their respective countries. Both wrote accessible tonal music for most of their careers but had fruitful late-life ventures with dodecaphonic techniques (and for Britten, aleatoric ones as well). They could both be very dour and serious or light-hearted and entertaining (usually with a dose of irony). They both drew powerful stylistic inspiration from their own language and literature. And both led marginalized existences within their own cultures, Britten owing to pacifism and homosexuality, Shostakovich owing to a precarious position vis-à-vis official Soviet cultural demands, resulting in a kind of double gamesmanship in which his music appeared to satisfy official requirements superficially while remaining ambiguous regarding its added possible ‘meaning’ as protest. Britten risked much when he included the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen in his “War Requiem” since at the time of its premier, 1961, such a position was rarely taken in public. This was all to change with the Vietnam War, but that lay years ahead. Shostakovich seems to have protected himself by portraying historical events that would be politically approved, such as “The Year 1905” for the Eleventh Symphony which purports to depict the massacre of peaceful protestors by the military at the Tsar’s Winter Palace of that year.1 There is a clear possibility, however, that he was also inspired by more contemporary parallel events such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in which Soviet Russia played the role of the oppressor (cf. note 3). Appreciation of this layer of meaning also lay years ahead, especially in his mother country.
Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you’ve heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be “beautiful” if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.
Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.
Australia and Britain have particularly close artistic ties, cooperatively sharing artists, as is well documented in the British Liaisons program, along with fascinating pictures. For example, the Irish Briton Ninette de Valois, who helped found the Royal Ballet, sent expertise to many countries in the form of dancers and teachers from her company, Peggy van Praagh in Australia’s case, and she also traveled much herself, for example to Turkey and the Yugoslav nations to help set up their national ballet companies. De Valois also gave Robert Helpmann opportunities to use his acting and dancing talent after he came to England from Australia as a young man. Not mentioned in the program, de Valois in 1928 commissioned a score from the avant garde Australian composer Elsie Hamilton for her ballet The Scorpions of Ysit, though the original failed at the time, it would be interesting to restore it. A good 21st Century example is Peter Wright and John MacFarlane’s (an Englishman and Scot respectively) Nutcracker, which is also now in the Australian Ballet’s repetoire. In any case, the three ballets in this program, all from British choreographers, give a much more articulate description of modern artistic collaboration with Britain and show off its diversity. In addition, this program offers an opportunity to hear well played 20th century music that is not often heard.